What will you be reading about?
1. Why is this topic important to history?
2. Short write up about Vedic religion
3. Some description about the major Vedic deities
4. How are these deities worshipped?
5. The decline of Vedic religion and the rise of Hinduism
1. Why is this topic important to history ?
The Vedic religion is one of significant importance in history. Many modern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism originated from the Vedic religion and are influenced through its practices and teachings.
It also tells us how the people of the ancient Indus valley civilizations rationalize and understand the world around them. They created gods to help them make sense of everything from natural disasters to mundane daily events. From this we can see that they tried to make sense of the world they were in based on their understanding. It is interesting to note that when logical explanations fail, the supernatural is where most civilizations turn to,to understand the unexplained.
Even the order in which Vedic Deities are organised are indications of the social structure they adopted. We can see how the influence of religion can also affect the social environment that the Indians lived in. Furthermore it highlights the ideological shifts that contributed to favoritism of certain gods that may have lead to the gradual decline of the Vedic faith. This may be what pushed the religion into a transitory stage that created Hinduism.
2. What is Vedic religion?
Vedic religion is one of the oldest religion that originated from India. It existed between 1750 BCE to 500 BCE. The Vedic religion is a precursor to Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. The Vedic religion revolves around cosmogony1.
Like all religion, Vedic religion too has various scriptures that are called the Vedas. The “king” of the Vedas is called the Rig Veda. The Rig Veda consists of hymns2 that were dedicated to the different Vedic deities.
Just like how Ka and Maat were important concepts of ancient Egypt, the Vedic religion too had two important concepts; the Satya which means truth and the Rta which means ordered movement (Brown,1965,p23).
There are many stories about the creation of heaven and earth but we will only talk about one story that introduces us to the main Vedic deity; Indra and other major deities like Varuna. This story was taken from the Rig Veda.(Brown,1965)
Let’s begin with the story as stated in the Theories of Creation in the Rig Veda, there already existed a primordial world where the sky and earth were joined together. It lacked “moisture, heat and light”3(Brown,1965,p24). It is also said that that world lacked order and existed in chaos. This world was ruled by Asuras.** There were two types of Asuras, the Adithyas who were led by Varuna and the Danavas who were led by Vrtra. Unfortunately they did not co-exist peacefully. The Adithyas and the Danavas were at constant war. The Adithyas were constantly at a losing end. So to stop this, the Adithyas arranged for a hero to be born. That hero is Indra. Indra’s parents were the Sky and the Earth4. Like all heroic stories, right after Indra was born he was trained to become a warrior. Following that, Varuna(ruler of Adithya) made Indra to promise him that after he defeats Vrtra, he would become their ruler, basically he was asked to replace Varuna.( Brown,1965,p.24)
The war between Indra and Vrtra took place, where Indra defeats Vrtra by slaying his belly. Through that cosmic waters called the apah flowed. The cosmic waters brought along the sun to the primordial world hence bringing "moisture, heat and light" allowing the earth to be suitable for "creation". This also caused the earth to be spread out with the sky above it. Henceforth creating heaven and earth5.
So, what about Vishnu and Shiva ?6 They were considered to be the minor deities of the Vedic religion They only made minor appearances in the Rig Veda. Shiva appeared as Rudra who is believed to be the earlier form of Shiva.
- A theory regarding the origins of earth ↩
- Typically a song about a deity ↩
- This shows that the primordial world was not suitable for creation ↩
- The Sky and Earth were the parents of Devas. Devas were considered to be divine beings.Some of the Devas are Agni, Yama, soma, etc.So when Indra became the King of the Adithyas, it makes sense that the Adithyas became divine beings too i.e they became the devas whereas the Danavas remained as asuras. The devas were considered to be righteous and divie whereas the asuras were considered to be aggressive and responsible for the chaos in the world. ↩
- [In The Basic Concept of Vedic Religion] described Vrtra as a mountain. This mountain kept the sky and the earth together, hence when Indra slayed the mountain, the sky and the earth got separated(Kuiper ,1975) ↩
- Shiva and Vishnu are main deities of Hinduism, Shaivism and Vaishnavism( these are the two common practices in Hinduism) were born out of these deities. We can see the first major difference between Vedic religion and Hinduism. We can also see it as a evidence that proves that the vedic religion was indeed a precursor of hinduism ↩
3. The Main Vedic Deities
Indra; as discussed earlier he is the “hero” and the slayer of Vrtra. He separated the heaven and earth.
Agni. The literal translation of this name is fire. So, this is a fire god or the deity who is associated to fire. Offerings to god/deities are burnt in a fire pit called the Homam. Therefore Agni is considered to be a medium for communication/offering between men and god. Interestingly This is still in practice in modern Hinduism. Hence Agni is a deity of significance both in Vedic religion and Hinduism
Varuna. He is the god of water or the ocean. He was the king of Adithyas but was later replaced by Indra.
Surya: The sun himself.
Yama. He is someone like the grim reaper. He is in-charge of the underworld. He is still the grim reaper and as popular in Hinduism. However he is considered as the minor deity in the Hinduism.
4. How do the people worship these deities?
There were several objects that were commonly used when the people worship these deities, such as: ghee, incense, milk, sandalwood, tulsi, altar, banana leaves, bhog, coconuts, diya (oil lamps), fly-whisks, garlands, prasad, shankha (conch) and tilaka.
The mode of worship was worship of the elements like fire and rivers, worship of heroic gods like Indra, chanting of hymns and performance of sacrifices. People prayed for abundance of children, rain, cattle (wealth), long life and an afterlife in the heavenly world of the ancestors. This mode of worship has been preserved even today in Hinduism, which involves recitations from the Vedas by a purohita (priest), for prosperity, wealth and general well-being. However, the primacy of Vedic deities has been seconded to the deities of Puranic literature.
The main practices reflect a society that was deeply religious. The people held their Gods and deities in high regard and associated them with events in life, the weather, and natural disasters. While there were many ways in which they worship, Vedic practices were primarily a personal affair. The worshippers would chant the names of their favourite deities and also the mantras (prayers). The do so usually at shrines they have at home and this is how they make their offerings of fruits, water, flowers, or incense. The shrine itself can be anything from an altar, a room, or even just pictures or photos of their gods. However communal worship is also welcomed at temples.
Another prominent ritual practitioners of the Vedic religion engaged in was the fire ritual (Havan/Homa). This ritual was mainly done as a way to honor their deities through the use of sacrifices. This ritual uses fire as a means to send the offerings to the respective gods the practitioners want to worship. They require a priest to aid the process of the ritual and although sacrifices were more grand in the past, current day practices sacrifice still do happen for special occasions ( Michaels, 2015).The object or items being sacrificed is also of no significance, it the the want and the devotion that leads to the sacrifice that is more important. As such, anything can be used as a sacrifice but notable items that are sacrificed are usually food items and food ingredients. This is rather similar to the way Greek sacrifices are made to their gods as well as several current Taoist practices of burning paper items to honor the dead. We can see how practices between religions are more often than not to be rather similar.
5. The Decline of the vedic religion and the rise of hinduism
The Vedic religion was considered the combination of the religions of the Indo- Aryans of the northern India. It can also be known as the Vedism, ancient Hinduism, Brahmanism and Vedic Brahmanism. Vedic religion is the roots and source of the modern Hinduism, although both are rather different. For example, the major vedic deities were represented through nature such as wind, earth, fire and water whereas the majaor hindu deities were given physical forms like icons or statues and were house in shrine or temples.
During the period around 500BC, it is said to be the end of the vedic religion. From the period of 800 BCE to 200 BCE was the creation time frame for Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism which is also known as the " Classical Period".
The traditions of Vedic religion still remain in some rural parts of the Indian subcontinent whereby rituals are still performed although it has extinct in most areas. As the time passes, the Vedic religion has progressively transformed into Puranic Hinduism in several Hinduism schools.
It is said that the Vedic gods decreases but were not diminish entirely, and local cults were integrated into the Vedic-brahmanic pantheon, which transformed into the Hindu pantheon.
There were several major rig Vedic gods who are no longer worshipped due to various different reasons, and one of most interesting myth is: Brahma 1
His only duty as a deity was the making of all creatures in the world. Despite being a major deity, Brahma is considered to be the least worship god in hinduism both in the past and in the modern society.
All these transformation are indictions and evidence of the decline of the Vedic religion and the rise of Hinduism that still exists in our modern society. This shows us that even though both widely differ yet is still intertwined in one way or another; how the Vedic religion is the root of Hinduism.
- There are two rather interesting myth that have been circled around:
1)In order for Brahma to fulfil his duty as a creator, he created an woman of extreme beauty called Shatarupa as his assistance. However, in the process he was deeply in love with her and would gaze in every direction she was at. Due to the immerse embarrassment, Shatarupa attempts to turn away from him, but to no avail because Brahma sprouted out one head in every direction she goes and eventually developed four heads. Out of desperations, Shatarupa tries to jump to avoid his gaze. Expectedly, Brahma with his great obsession, sprouted out a fifth head on the top. In addition, it is rumoured that the creation of animals were the results of Shatapura's attempts to change her form out of desperations to escape from Brahma's gaze but failed as Brahma would change his form into the males species of those creatures. Ever since then Brahma’s desire and lust for the flesh, had distracted his mind from the soul. Due to his incestuous behaviour, Brahma was put under the cause of Lord Shiva: not to be worshipped by the people anymore. His fifth head is also chopped off as an punishment. As a form of repentance, it is said that Brahma has been continually reciting the four Vedas, one from each of his four heads.
2)A more sympathetic story would be that Brahma's duty as a creator was over and there is no longer a need for people to worship him anymore. ↩
While the Vedic religion is often seen as a precursor to Hinduism, Hinduism in and of itself is more a of continuation of the Vedic religion. There are slight shifts in ideologies due to changes in social environment and advances in technologies that offer more to aid in the understanding of everyday life. However, practices, rituals, and traditions within Hinduism do not differ greatly from the original Vedic religion. While some deities that were once worshiped popularly, it is inevitable that they are moved into the realm of the past. This is not say that they are not of significance anymore, but more that they become revered for their role in the grand scheme of things. The deities that are now worship might also face the same fate.
Agni.(2017,March 18). Retrieved March15,2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agni
Brown, W. Theories of Creation in the Rig Veda.(1965). Journal of the American Oriental Society,85(1), 23-34. doi:10.2307/597699
BBC - Religions - Hinduism: Brahma. (2009, August 24). Retrieved February 25, 2017, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/hinduism/deities/brahma.shtml#findoutmore
Historical Vedic religion. (2017, February 21). Retrieved February 25, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_Vedic_religion
Michaels, A. Homo Ritualis: Hindu Ritual and Its Significance to Ritual Theory. (2015).Oxford University Press.
Payne, R. K., & Michael, W. Homa Variations: The Study of Ritual Change Across The Longue Duree.(2015).Oxford University Press.
The Fire Ritual. (2014, March 2). Retrieved March 12, 2017, from Havan/Homa:http://sanskrit.org/the-fire-ritual-havanhoma/